Vassar Stories

Two Years in Swaziland with the Peace Corps

Over the past two years, Peace Corps volunteer Hannah Maddrey ’12 has helped residents of a remote village in Swaziland build school libraries, create a profit-making business for young orphans, launch a life skills club for teens, and revive a girls’ empowerment club.

Peace Corps volunteer Hannah Maddrey ’12 with members of her creative writing class in Swaziland

Soon, readers from around the world will be able to learn about the personal struggles and triumphs of 18 high school students in the village. With Maddrey’s help, they have published their stories in an e-book that will be available through Amazon this summer.

Maddrey hatched the idea for the book while she was teaching a creative writing class at the secondary school last fall.  “I was blown away by the type of stories the students decided to share,” she says. “Many wrote about loss – of parents, friends, siblings, teachers. Some wrote about the struggles of making it through school and issues with family and boyfriends They were all confident in wanting to share these experiences, and I came to admire their bravery and resilience.”

Maddrey says she was looking for a way to have her students share their stories with a larger audience when she learned her aunt, who is a writer in the United States, had helped a family friend who was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone publish an e-book of family folklore for students there. “Once my aunt formatted the file for me, I was able to use Amazon direct publishing to have it sold online,” she says.

Amazon will collect 25 percent of the profits and the students in the village will keep the rest. The book will be available on Amazon here.

An international studies major at Vassar, Maddrey decided to focus on the history and culture of Africa “because I knew so little about it.” She studied abroad in Madagascar and wrote her senior thesis on women’s weaving cooperatives in Madagascar and South Africa, then decided to join the Peace Corps. “I wanted the hands-on experience of immersing myself in the culture, which is vital for development work,” Maddrey says.

She arrived in Ndwabangeni, a community of about 3,000 “about 10 miles from the nearest paved road,” in the spring of 2014. Shortly after she got there, Maddrey learned that the village had acquired a quantity of children’s books through a program called Books for Africa but had never found a place to put them. “I was talking to one of my friends who worked at a pre-school in the community about my frustration, and we got together with teachers at two other pre-schools, split the donations of books and built small libraries,” Maddrey says. “The teachers now read to their students every day, and parents are able to check out books and bring them home. I also started partnering with nearby primary schools, having the older children read to the pre-schoolers once a week.”

When she learned the village had a large orphan population due to the prevalence of AIDS in Swaziland, Maddrey helped the villagers create a chicken-raising business whose profits will be used to support the orphaned children. “We taught the kids the basics of starting a business and caring for the chickens,” she says. “The village donated a building for the chicken house, and community members volunteered to help with all the renovations. There were some delays, but we have 15 children who will be running the business and using the profits to buy food and clothing.”

Borrowing on concepts used in a successful program in Namibia, Maddrey founded a life skills club in one of the elementary schools in the village. Topics covered in the workshops include self-esteem, HIV awareness, and relationships and sexuality. She also revived a dormant chapter of a self-esteem club for young women called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).

Maddrey describes her two years in Swaziland as both frustrating and rewarding.  “I tried not to have any specific expectations going in, and I guess you always feel you could have done more,” she says. “The chicken project took so long to get going--that was frustrating--but now that it’s about to happen and the community has become involved, I know the kids will have the money for food and clothes and school fees. But you never know how much you’ll actually affect people’s lives down the road.”

Maddrey says she’ll always cherish the friendships she made. “There’s a woman about my age who was my Swazi tutor when I got here, and she became my best friend, and she’s interested in carrying out the projects that I started,” she says. “As I’m getting ready to leave, it’s great to see the kids using the libraries we built, seeing the parents and teachers using the books, and seeing the children getting excited about reading.”

Maddrey credits her Vassar education with helping her address the challenges she faced in Swaziland. “Vassar really teaches you how to think critically and creatively, how to assess any situation you’re confronted with,” she says.

Maddrey offers this advice to those considering the Peace Corps: “Curb your expectations that you’re going to save the world, but appreciate the unique opportunity you’ll have to immerse yourself in a culture and learn a new way of life. That’s the most valuable part of the experience.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Monday, May 16, 2016